Chartres Cathedral From The Outside
In the late afternoon our train pulled into the station in downtown Chartres. Our hotel was just a couple of blocks away. Though it was pretty basic, from the window of our room we could view what had drawn us here: Chartres Cathedral, which we would see for the first time.
One thing that absolutely made all the difference to our visit was signing up for a tour led by Malcolm Miller. Miller is English but lives in Chartres and has studied the cathedral for the last 50 years. He’s written books and travels all over the world lecturing on Chartres.
Approaching the cathedral, it seems to be almost completely covered with thousands of sculpted figures, creating a chaotic impression. Miller explained that the sculptures outside and the stained glass inside are not just a conglomeration of images. Rather, the cathedral can be thought of as a kind of giant picture book whose thousands of figures combine to tell bible stories along with related religious messages.
Most of the images mean nothing to a majority of travellers who see them today. However, they could be “read” by the mainly illiterate people of the 12th and 13th centuries who were alive when the cathedral was built.
Partly this was because people of the time were steeped in the stories of the bible. But in addition, objects were included that to a medieval person would provide instant identification. For example, the keys held by the the third figure above identifies him as St. Peter, who guards the gates of heaven.
Similarly, the man and boy above are Abraham and Isaac. If you are in any doubt, you can see that Isaac stands on a smaller image of a ram caught in a shrub – the ram that Abraham was able to sacrifice in place of his son Isaac.
Here is Jesus on the Throne of Judgement, with Mary by his side. Not sure who the other figure is.
The damned being sent on their way. Pretty grim stuff.
Parts of the cathedral were destroyed or added on over the centuries, which is why the two steeples look so different. The first one is plain and was finished in the 12th Century. The second was built in the 16th Century and is covered in Gothic doodads.
I’m not a big cathedral enthusiast, or even a religious person. But it is hard not to feel moved by this edifice and all the skill and devotion that was poured into it. It stands as a monument to another world, and another way of seeing the world.
Coming soon: Chartres from the inside.